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US-British policy of appeasing Mussolini’s rule

Italy's dictator received glowing plaudits from high-ranking British and American statesmen, such as Winston Churchill, Henry Stimson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

National debt in Benito Mussolini’s Italy was growing year-on-year, while he placed the Italian economy increasingly on a war footing. “This military dilettante”, as Hitler’s close adviser Wilhelm Keitel contemptuously described Mussolini, was seeking to create a 20th century Roman Empire by force of arms.

The growing popularity of Mussolini in the US

The scholar and academic David F. Schmitz discerned that, “American officials, impressed by the political stability of Italy, ignored such warnings of trouble”. As early as 1923 Mussolini “made a very favourable impression” on US delegates, according to Morgan Bank representative Nelson Dean Jay, after the Duce delivered the opening address at the International Chamber of Commerce in Rome. Why had Mussolini so impressed? During his speech, he said it was time for European governments to privatise enterprises that had been nationalised during World War One.

The German military leader, Erich Ludendorff, whose reign expanded across most of Europe in the war, had nationalised an array of industries in central and eastern Europe, including newspaper and cigarette companies. This process, of placing industry under state control, was later reversed after Ludendorff was forced to resign at war’s end.

Read more: How US supported Mussolini’s fascism in Italy

The prominent US judge, Elbert Henry Gary, a co-founder of the US Steel Corporation, said of Mussolini while on a trip to Rome in 1923, “A master hand has, indeed, strongly grasped the helm of the Italian state”. Judge Gary felt “like turning to my American friends and asking them whether they don’t think we, too, need a man like Mussolini”. The judge was obviously impressed by Mussolini’s ability to crush labour strikes.

Henry Stimson, the US Secretary of State and future Secretary of War, outlined in 1933, “American relations with Italy were of the most cordial character”. After World War Two, Stimson recalled that he and US president Herbert Hoover believed Mussolini to be “a sound and useful leader”. When US General Smedley Butler made unflattering remarks about Mussolini in 1931, Stimson went so far as to bring court-martial proceedings against him.

Hoover’s successor Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democratic president, labelled Mussolini an “admirable Italian gentleman” in 1933, as Washington’s support for the dictator continued. Roosevelt’s Ambassador to Italy, Breckinridge Long, was enthusiastic about the “new experiment in government” that fascism presented which “works most successfully in Italy”.

Read more: How Mussolini, Italy’s fascist leader, met his fate

The US State Department considered Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia a “magnificent” achievement, and that the Blackshirts “brought order out of chaos, discipline out of licence, and solvency out of bankruptcy”. In 1937, the State Department regarded both Italian and German fascism as political movements which “must succeed or the masses, this time reinforced by the disillusioned middle classes, will again turn to the Left”.

In 1939 as a second war loomed, President Roosevelt said that Italian fascism was “of great importance to the world” but was “still in the experimental stage”. Powerful multi-millionaire American bankers, like Thomas Lamont for example, was a fervent Mussolini admirer. Lamont, a partner of US banking institution J.P. Morgan, called Mussolini “a very upstanding chap” who had “done a great job for Italy” with his “sound ideas”. Otto Kahn, another influential US banker, praised Italy under “the clear sighted and masterful guidance of that remarkable man, Benito Mussolini”.

Mussolini’s ever-increasing wealth in Britain

Backing for Mussolini likewise extended across the British establishment. Mussolini’s ties to London in fact date to 1917, when he was hired in the autumn of that year as a British agent by MI5, the intelligence service. The then 34-year-old Mussolini, as editor of the Il Popolo d’Italia newspaper in Milan, was paid £100 a week by MI5 for at least a year, equivalent to £7,000 weekly today. These payments were dispensed to ensure that Mussolini would continue publishing warmongering articles, urging Italy to remain on the Allied side against Germany.

British funds to Mussolini were authorised by the Conservative politician Samuel Hoare, MI5’s man in Rome. Mussolini told Hoare, an MP, that he would send Italian Army veterans to beat up peace protesters, news that apparently did not discourage his British paymasters.

Read more: Was Lunderdorff responsible for Germany’s failure in WW1?

Winston Churchill – a great admirer of Mussolini? 

Italy’s dictator received glowing plaudits from high-ranking British statesmen, such as Conservative Party MP Winston Churchill. In 1927 the 52-year-old Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, embarked on a visit to Rome where he met the Duce. Churchill subsequently informed the press, “I could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm and detached pose, in spite of so many dangers and burdens… If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been wholeheartedly with you from start to finish, in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism”.

Churchill’s comments are perhaps not surprising, considering that he hated trade unionists, socialists and communists as much as Mussolini did. The English historian John Simkin wrote, “The historical record shows that Churchill was a great admirer of fascism”, as revealed in addition by “his speeches and articles he produced in the 1920s and 1930s”, including letters to his wife. “Signor Mussolini” would only become a problem for Churchill and colleagues in the latter stages of his fascist rule, when British interests were threatened by the despot’s colonial ambitions.

Conservative Party MP Austen Chamberlain, the British Foreign Secretary from 1924 to 1929, was a personal friend of Mussolini’s. Chamberlain, a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925, had twice served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and was the half-brother of future prime minister Neville Chamberlain.

As Foreign Secretary, Austen Chamberlain said of Mussolini, “I am confident that he is a patriot and a sincere man; I trust his word when given, and I think that we might easily go far before finding an Italian with whom it would be as easy for the British government to work”. Ronald Graham, the British Ambassador to Italy from 1921 to 1933, also viewed the fascist dictatorship with approval. The Eton-educated Graham dispatched to London a number of supportive accounts of Mussolini’s rule, which were read eagerly by British Foreign Office and Cabinet officials.

Mussolini’s success in securing a high stature for Italy

With Mussolini having consolidated his power, the London-based newspaper the Times, one of England’s leading dailies, outlined its view in June 1928 that Mussolini was “indefatigable and successful” in securing Italy’s place as a major state. The London Times, bought in 1922 by wealthy US-born Conservative politician John Jacob Astor, was clearly pro-Mussolini. The Times applauded the dictator’s “wonderful judgment”, observing that he even had “a sense of humour”; while the newspaper was worried that Mussolini’s regime could fall some day, calling it “too horrible to contemplate”; the Times praised him again in February 1929 for his “great daring and great statesmanship”.

Read more: Op-ed: German expansionism and slave labour during World War One

In December 1928 the Daily Telegraph professed Mussolini to be an “uncompromising realist” who had an “honourable record” of peaceful intent. Conveniently forgotten was Mussolini’s invasion and bombardment of the Greek island of Corfu, in autumn 1923, which resulted in over a dozen civilian deaths.

The Telegraph, moreover, approved of Mussolini’s labour laws, which it considered a “daring innovation” rooted in “pure patriotism”. The anti-fascist historian Salvemini remarked in 1936 that the Telegraph “always backed Mussolini”. Italian fascism was firmly supported by other British newspapers, like the extreme anti-Bolshevik Daily Mail and Morning Post, the latter taken over in 1937 by the Telegraph. Australian author Richard Bosworth, who focuses on fascist Italy, revealed that the only mainstream British journal which condemned Mussolini outright was, “The Spectator, whose early enthusiasm for Mussolini had waned”.

Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years and has had articles published with American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain, and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.